The Phenomenon IP Address Explained in Simple Terms

What an IP Address is explained to Average Joe

A typical example used in trying to explain what an IP Address is. Average Joe doesn’t want this!

When I first heard the phrase IP Address I was 18 or 19. It was before the year 2000, almost 18 years from now. The Internet was largely unknown and not very interesting to my friends and I, and we didn’t really understand what it was anyway. Even though we had used it, without being impressed at all, we knew of more interesting technical things.

Whenever we tried using the Internet we only did it because we were wondering what it was, but we didn’t know what to do there — probably because there wasn’t much interesting going on for people like us back then. I’m not going to disclose what we did, or tried to do, because it can be embarrassing, and it’s not important for understanding what an IP Address is. However, the Internet was a buzzword— and something we wanted to know more about, even though what we found was boring when we tried.

One of the things we liked more than learning what the internet had to offer was gaming. We connected our computers and played games with each other. Then there were these games called Doom2 and Quake2. When playing against each other on a local network we had to use a communication method called TCP/IP which our local network  (aka LAN – Local Area Network) was not set up to support. We were almost furious because what we’d seen about doom and quake2 was amazing, and we really wanted to play it. Our network was set up using a network communication technology called IPX/SPX. How we managed to set up this network, no one knows, we just did it by trial and error.

A video of a Quake2 game match. This would not work if it wasn’t for the IP Address. Several computers are continuously communicating with a central server to keep track of the rules of the game

The main reason why it wouldn’t work was because Quake2 required to authenticate on-line (on the internet, we didn’t know that was on-line at the time) to check that it was not stolen or copied software. If it wasn’t able to, then it wouldn’t let us play. We had paid for the game, which was something we didn’t usually do, and it was a lot of money for us. I then had my first real encounter with computer software situations that has followed me in my career for the rest of my life. To summarize: I was thinking something like: How stupid is this? We bought the game, and we want to play NOW, but because of a name change TCP/IP or IPX/SPX or whatever, it/they won’t let us. And it has to do with the internet. I doomed, ironically, the internet to be a dying phenomena because of this.

I will spare you the details about TCP/IP and IPX/SPX, but you may have noticed that there is clearly an IP in “TCP/IP”. It’s also an IP in “IPX/SPX”. This is the same IP as in IP Address – and to put it this way: It has, in many ways, taken over the world. Not necessarily in a bad way, but not necessarily in a good way either, it just has. And that may be the actual reason why you’re here trying to have someone explain what it is – in Average Joe terms.

That IP was bugging me then, and it is not only bugging me now, it’s bugging a lot of people. But it is also helping a lot of people. I personally mean it’s helping more than it’s not. But I will leave that dispute to other technical-philosophers to work on. Let’s just jump string on it, by continuing with a relevant, beautiful and easy to understand picture before diving into the Average Joe details about IP Address.

Enough Background

What’s an IP Address? 🤔

Red leaf on black planks
Read leaf on black planks, representing the beauty in the protocol — Credit Hans K. Aspenberg

The IP

To understand the phenomenon IP Address I believe it is best to start by dismantling the term. First you need to know that IP is short for Internet Protocol. You probably know what internet is — it’s the world’s largest network of computers. It is likely your computer is connected to the internet when you read this. The next word protocol is a word that, in this case, represents a set of rules. This set of rules can be thought of as an indisputable ruleset that every computer program or device that wants to be able to communicate over the internet have to follow. If you don’t follow these rules, then you will not be able to communicate (aka send and receive signals in a controlled manner) over the internet. You as a person don’t have to worry about the rules, your computer knows well how to do it for you; and it is all translated in the end to something like clicks and actions in a browser or whatever you experience on your computer device / screen. It can also be translated to completely other situations, such as starting a car or turning on heating in your home.

Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the fact that these are rules your computer is doing. It can be a thought of as simple as rules written on a piece of paper. Some examples of such rules translated to average Joe everyday situations:

  • If your message is bigger than 100 characters, you have to go right (e.g. on line 5)
  • If your message is important, it should continue on line 14 of e.g. 50 available lines out of a router on the internet
  • If you want to reach your personal data facebook, your request must include authentication details
  • If your internet connection is slow, you should wait longer before trying to make a new request
  • If you want to communicate securely, your message must be encrypted before it is sent from your computer/device
  • If the network is busy or overloaded, then message X gets deprioritized and message Y gets a higher priority

Note that the examples listed above are not necessarily examples of transport rules related to the Internet Protocol (IP), they are simply examples of rules that a computer (your computer or a routing device on the internet) could follow in relation to communication. All these rules are made in the effort of achieving most optimal communication regardless of the situation. That also means regardless of how many “people” are trying to communicate at any given time, and who is trying to communicate with who.

There are many other protocols, or different rulesets, to communicate over computer networks, but on the internet it’s the “Internet Protocol” that defines how to behave technically. The main reason for this is because your computer needs to cooperate with many other computers on the network (in this case the internet) to be able to reach the place you want to send and receive information. Very many of these other computers do not belong to another person, they are simply computer-devices that have been put up to help transport data efficiently in the effort of making the internet work. These computer-devices can be compared to e.g. the asphalt your car drives on to get to a destination, or the rails a train runs on. Their sole purpose is to efficiently help communication / data-passing on the internet. Very often, when you interact with what you think is some-one on the internet, you do actually, technically, communicate with other “third party” computer-devices. And these devices again are being communicated with by the person whom you think you are communicating directly. An example of this is when you post a picture on Facebook. Your computer communicates with Facebook-owned servers which stores the image. Then the people you want to show the picture to are actively requesting the Facebook-network after “news” from their friends.

To be able to send your data to a specific place on the internet, very often, many computer-devices have to be involved to have your information reach the destination. It does not consist of a wire directly from you to the place where the information is supposed to end up. Every transport between such a device can be considered a hop. In this way, to reach your final destination, your information transportation has to visit several devices on it’s way to the receiver. Therefore perform several hops.

Example of network hops
Example of network hops. Credit: microsoft.com

Your first hop is probably from your laptop to your local router in your home (that router is often considered a local, off-line device in this relation, with a direct connection to the internet). It forwards your information to your ISP (Internet Service Provider), such as AOL or some other company. From there your information is passed on to the next device, most optimal for achieving the goal of having your information end up at the correct destination. The next device may be located outside your city (just an example). This device analyses your destination request according to the protocol, and decides where to pass it on further, for most optimal speed. Each such device all have direct lines to, more or less, a handful other devices, and have to choose where to pass on your data to reach your destination. All these inter-communication-devices, surely, must follow the Internet Protocol to achieve this. If not, the main goal would not be reached, and the internet would not exist, because the internet would not work as it was intended.

One interesting and important thing to keep in mind is that all the devices connected on the internet, do not know the physical location of each other. Nor do they really care. All they care about, is following the Internet Protocol ruleset, and fulfill its information passing goal most optimally. An example can be a router sitting in the top of Norway (aka Finnmark). Let’s say it has four wires to/from it. One from the south, one from the north, one from the west, and one from the east. The device doesn’t care about the physical direction of the wires, be it Russia, The USA, down in Southern Europe, or Svalbard (closer to the North Pole). All it want’s to achieve is to comply with Internet Protocol while doing it’s job of passing your information to the next computer-device closer to its final destination. This is not counted in physical distance, but in expected time to reach the goal, often by number of hops.

The Address

That’s it for Internet Protocol – the IP in IP Address. It’s the ruleset you have to follow to communicate over the internet. The Address part may be a bit simpler to explain. It is very much what it sound like, an Address — a destination name. But because this is for computers, they don’t have to be particularly humanly-recognizable, as are human addresses, such as New York. On the other hand, humans (of type computer technician) still have to relate to them, so they shouldn’t be annoyingly hard to recognize and remember for a human being either. So there was kind of a trade-off: let’s make the Internet Protocol Addresses optimal for computers to work with, and at the same time OK to read and remember for human beings. Thus, they invented the IPv4 Address. It consists of four numbers, separated by a period (or punctuation mark if you like). To learn details about how it works, and why it is like this, go to Wikipedia. This addressing format is sufficient for reaching all computer devices on the internet by giving each connected device their own IP Address……..

Or so they thought. 😱

Because that is no longer true! 😂

They thought it would be enough when they designed the IPv4 protocol. As you can learn the technical reasons for on the link above, the IPv4 address format only supports 4.3 billion devices. That’s no longer enough, as there are more people on the earth than that, and everybody want’s to have an IP address, whether they know it or not. But the biggest problem is all non-human devices that needs an IP address, such as all the routers that make up the Internet highway, and all servers on the internet, and every devices such as a television, phone, tablet, laptop, even refrigerators and light-bulbs, and almost anything you can think of that runs on electricity these days (it’s 2017). Long and complicated story made short, the animal of type homo sapiens, realized and accepted that they were wrong about their more than enough estimate when designing IPv4 — then crawled to the cross and designed a new protocol of the same type. It is still Internet Protocol — it’s just an upgraded version. They made IPv6. The species is now certain that the new specification will suffice (for eternity?). It can handle up to 34000000000000000000000000000000000000 devices. That’s normally represented as 3.4^38 — which is a 3.4 with 38 zeroes behind it. I will leave it up to you to find out what the name for such a large number is, I’m sure there is one, because there’s already a name for a 10 with 100 zeros behind it. Compared to the IPv4 specification, which could handle “only” 4.3 billion (aka 4300000000) devices, it seems like a big difference. But then again, how many light-bulbs are there in the world today? And how many will there be, after a relatively short period of time, when humans have terraformed- and settled on millions of other planets?

IP Address Locations

You may be curious about the location of the different addresses — or blocks, or ranges of IP Addresses. If you are, you are not alone. A lot of people are curious about knowing the position of IP Addresses. In fact, they are so interested that many companies have their own department just for finding out with highest possible precision. And there even exists independent companies solely focusing on locating the position of IP Addresses, as accurate as possible, a company called maxmind is one of them. But you can also locate the position of any of the 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses in the world. There are plenty of websites doing this for you — for free, and IPLocation.info is one of them. It will even let you look up the position of a webside or domain name — or let you search cities, countries and other areas of the world to see and learn about all IP addresses in those places. IPLocation.info will also let you browse areas of the world for finding out how IP Addresses have been designated throughout the world. Have a look at explore to see some graphical representations about the IP Structures of the world.

IP Address Regional Allocation
IP Address Regional Internet Registry (RIR) – Credit IANA

The location of IP Addresses can vary over time. But to some extent blocks of IP Addresses, also known as IP Ranges in the Regional Internet Registry (aka RIR) are manually assigned to certain areas by authorities such as IANA and ICANN. The IP Addresses further positioning from here is typically done by different levels of ISPs, who will often share IP Address positions in more detail with dedicated GeoLocation companies such as MaxMind. Your can read more about IP Address positioning on GeoLocation.

Both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses are generally assigned in a hierarchical manner. Users are assigned IP addresses by Internet service providers (ISPs). ISPs obtain allocations of IP addresses from a Local Internet Registry (LIR) or National Internet Registry (NIR), or from their appropriate Regional Internet Registry (RIR).

With IPLocation.info you can browse all IP Addresses by regions in a hierarchical manner:

  1. World
  2. North America
  3. South America
  4. Europe
  5. Asia
  6. Africa
  7. Oceania
  8. Antarctica

Do you and I have an IP Address?

Usually we do, because all devices connected to the internet has at least one. You can also have more than one, but it is not very common for end users to have several public IP Addresses, apart from perhaps one IPv4 and one IPv6 address. And the IP Address you use is usually only assigned to you temporarily from your ISP — so it’s not really yours. If you want to know what your IP Address is, there are several methods you can use to find it. The easiest is probably to use a third party service such as iplocation.info/ip/myip.html which will display your public IP address to you. Note that this is the IP Address that is connected directly to the internet (your ISP) and all information leaves your home for the internet with this IP Address as the sender (thus the receiver of the answer). Your actual computer device may have another IP Address because you may, without being aware of it, be having a LAN in your home. LANs are much used and popular because the enable many devices to reach the internet from the same IP Address, and that’s important when there are not enough IP Addresses for all the devices that is connected to the internet. In this way your LAN is creating your own private network consisting of private IP Addresses that are not valid addresses on the Internet. With this solution there can be several LANs using the same, private, IP Addresses without having a conflict. However, this is not important to understand what an IP Address is.

The Red Leaf

In the end you may be wondering why there’s a picture of a red leaf on black planks at the top of this post. The planks with it’s straight lines represents the stable and predictable protocol of the Internet — the ruleset that is indisputable and easy to follow for a computer. It can easily and predictably guide you to the location you’re seeking. And the leaf is beautiful and represents the incomprehensible chaos in the connectivity, the interactions and the communication between all devices connected together on the internet. In addition the word protocol comes from the Greek protocollon which means a leaf of paper glued to a manuscript volume that describes the contents.

The End

This is my attempt to explain what an IP Address is to someone like my grandmother, who is 99 in 2017. If you liked it, please let me know. Whether you’re an Average Joe or an expert and disagree with anything, please let me know, then I may update and credit you. Keep in mind that experts themselves often strongly disagree about the exact same thing.

I’m a computer technician doing programming, among other interesting things, in Norway. You can read more about me here.

This article was originally posted on IPLocation.info — A web site and service dedicated to helping the world know about the position of IP Addresses.

There is a whole bunch of other things related to IP Addresses that can be interesting to know about. Now you already know there is a limit to the amount of IPv4 addresses, and that this limit is so low it’s far from enough IP addresses for all the devices in the world connected to the internet. Stay tuned by signing up for the newsletter or check back later to find my next post of a related subject — I try to make a post with two to three month intervals.

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